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On leadership, culture and diversity

Crossword’s CEO, Tom Ilube CBE, discusses leadership, culture and diversity in an industry where it pays to take smart risks. This piece is based on an interview with Blair Melsom MBCS and was originally published by The Chartered Institute for IT.

What are biggest lessons you have learned during your career?

Culture, particularly in an organisation that is growing incredibly rapidly with new people coming in, is really important. You need a clearly defined culture that people can come into, absorb and start to behave in that way, otherwise, they bring ways of doing things from outside and change the culture of the organisation.

The other thing that I learnt was the ability to take smart risks. Big risks, strategic risks, but where you know that you're not betting the entire organisation. Understanding the difference between big risks that are rolling the dice of the entire organisation and smart risks, which are major and will move the dial - but if they go wrong won't kill the whole organisation - is important.

The last thing would be understanding the difference between purpose and game. The purpose of the organisation should be enduring, while the game is deciding tactically what you're going to do this year or these six months. So, the game can change, whereas the purpose stays the same. Often, people combine those two and get stuck on the game but actually, if you separate them, you give yourself lots of degrees of freedom about how you go about trying to achieve the long term, enduring purpose.

Do you have any tips for fostering an enduring culture?

A lot of it is in the leadership. So, whoever is leading the organisation has to be really authentic about the way they live the culture. They must look for opportunities to display that authenticity, so that people really understand it. For example, if you say your culture is one of openness and then when things get difficult, you and your executive team become very closed, well then, you're really striking at the heart of your culture and it'll be difficult to recover from that. Your team will see the contradiction and then it won't matter how many emails you send out saying we value openness and so forth. People look to the behaviours of the leadership more than the words that come out.

On LinkedIn, you describe yourself as 'a start-up guy'. Tell us about start up culture

What I like doing is coming up with an idea and then thinking, ‘How do I turn that idea into reality?’. When I see it become a reality, I think, ‘Wow, I did that. I made that happen.’ With the African Science Academy, I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be fascinating to create a school in Africa for exceptionally brilliant young women?’ And years later, there it is.

With my companies, such as Crossword, it's all about turning a dream into reality. What I'm really interested in is those early years where you've got a dream, you've got an idea, it's in your head and figuring out how to get it out of your head and into the real world. That's what I'm interested in.

What can established businesses learn from start-ups when it comes to transformation?

Established businesses can learn a lot. They can learn a lot about failure and that failure is not a bad thing, it is a necessary part of the journey. I often say that my specialist skill is failure. I am very good at it. What I'm very good at is failing and doing it again and failing and doing it again and just keep going and going and going.

That isn't ingrained in the culture of corporate life, that ability to say ‘Right, I'm going to take something on and if it fails, that's okay, that's part of the process.’ I think that established businesses can learn that from start-ups.

In recent Crossword webinar, Diversity in the cyber security and technology industry, you described the tech industry as ‘embarrassing’ when it comes to diversity. Tell us more about this.

IT is a brand-new industry that barely existed 40, 50 years ago. It's been created from scratch and is populated by intelligent, forward-thinking people. You would have thought that an industry like that would be an absolute showcase of what diversity is all about and, frankly, our industry is way off.

In some cases, it seems to have succeeded in building all the rigidities that some of those older industries have that have taken hundreds of years to build up. We are a heavily male-dominated, white industry that is really closed, quite difficult to get into, quite difficult to get to the top of and that is the industry that we've created.

I think it's really important we shape society. We are doing this in some ways with the algorithms that we're creating. We are codifying society into algorithms that could be difficult to undo down the track.

Is it too late for IT to set an example for how diversity could look for other industries?

No, I don't think it's too late at all. There is almost no point where it's just too late. Too late almost implies that the way things are is locked in with no way to be unlocked. I don't think that's where we are. I think it's a real opportunity to take it on.


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